The Whore of Manzanita
Spring is hard in Manzanita. The sun comes out, the flowers bloom, the grass turns bright green, then a storm blows in off the Pacific and stays a week. We’ve been here all winter, listening to the water splash from the gutters at the corners of our houses. The ocean heaves and sobs at the shore. We make soup. We walk the dogs on the wet beach or through the dripping woods, the green ferns and gray cedars. We make everything nice for the tourists, who won’t be here for another couple of months.
We hear that Daniel Crouch is coming to visit his mother. He doesn’t come as often as he ought to. He only lives in Seattle. He looks a little gay in his tiny glasses and good sweaters, driving a Miata. We’re pretty sure he’s not. We have our gays here and we don’t mind them. The gays are good neighbors and they keep their houses up. But his mother, Katie, says he was almost married the other year and he did bring a girl with him a couple of years ago, back when he was driving that Prius, which also made us wonder. A good-looking girl though. Maybe a little tidy for us, all straight lines and angled hair. But a good-looking girl.
He’s coming by himself this time, Katie says. She’s the day bartender at the Salty Dog, the regular bar. There’s also the Rose and Raindrop but it’s pretty quiet in there off-season. The Salty Dog smells like French fries and beer and is open for breakfast.
And all of us think right away of Jenn McGill. Jenn and Daniel went out in high school, two or three years, and when he went off to college in Eugene she went with him. Then she came home a year later, no explanation. She’s a tall red-headed girl. She runs, stays in shape, assistant coach for the girls’ soccer team over at the high school. She just volunteers there, she works at the title company here in town. After she came back from Eugene, she went to the community college up in Newport to finish up, met a lawyer named Donald Hake when they were both training for the Portland marathon. Then married him.
They built a big house with a view of the ocean, had a boy and then a girl. They looked like the couple on top of the wedding cake, both of them slim, good teeth, nicely dressed though nothing fancy. Nothing that wouldn’t fit in. Tennis and mountain biking. Donald even got involved in politics for a moment there, running for county council to try and stop a development out by the state park.
Then Donald was coming back from day care one evening, right at dusk, and a log truck lost its brakes coming out of a side road onto 101. It hit the passenger side dead on. One second before or one second after, they would have been fine. Siobhan, down at the Ace Hardware, said the same thing happened to her last year except in front of her car, and she was able to stop, just barely in time.
Donald walked away, and the boy — in the car seat right behind him — in his arms. But the girl, Lydia, died on the spot. Never had a chance.
We were all at the funeral. One of those freak October days, clear blue skies and the sun beating down and the ocean blue as California in the sunlight. The graveyard here is on a cliff by the sea, a few windblown pines around a patch of green grass. The weather was so nice that day. Donald held the boy in his arms the whole time, though he was three and really too big to hold that way. Jenn had just gone back to work. She stayed home with the two of them that year. The girl was one.
And after the funeral, we all went home and embraced our children and held on to them so tightly and so long that we worried them. This was something each of us did in private and we were all embarrassed about it so it took a long time to understand that almost every one of us had done so. And this was because of Jenn, her face. Donald looked like nothing much, sad, of course, but mostly inside himself. But you looked in Jenn’s face and you saw something broken and alive. This was just not possible, this death, and yet it would not stop happening. She could not be reconciled. You think you know but you don’t know. Then you see a face like hers and you understand, that everything you know and everything you love can be taken from you in an instant.
They made it another year or so. People don’t. She kept talking, kept showing up for birthdays and even baby showers. But she had stopped confiding in any of us. Just one day she was in the big house with the ocean view and the next day in a little summer cottage, way back in the woods. It was a surprise but not really a surprise.
Then she started with the men. At first she kept it out of town. It was just a rumor, or a series of rumors: a car parked outside her house all night, a pickup truck. Somebody saw her in a bar in Seaside, practically sitting in somebody’s lap, somebody we didn’t know. The nights the boy was with her, she was fine. He was going back and forth. But nights when he was with his dad, it was like she couldn’t stand to be alone. That was the barstool opinion at the Salty Dog, that she couldn’t stand the empty house, and who could blame her?
Then, two years ago in spring, Mary Ann and Forrest Tucker were splitting up, and Jenn’s name was in the middle of it. None of us knew exactly how. But it made sense: Forrest was a runner, like her, and a dry drunk. Some adventure to fill the long dry hours, some excitement that wasn’t going to kill him. And it’s true that Mary Ann had gone a little far down the earth-mother road, with the garden and the sandals and the hairy legs. But she was one of us.
That was it for the birthday parties and baby showers. We’d see her in the Safeway or in the school parking lot and we would say hi, light up in smiles, make imaginary plans for play dates, hors d’ouvres, shopping days in Portland. Nothing ever happened. It wasn’t that we hated her. We all felt sorry for her, still. But Jenn was tall, and lonely, and beautiful, and the winter here is long, the spring still longer. And we were taking care of our children, and working, trying to keep the house clean and the refrigerator stocked. Not all of us were still beautiful or interesting. Most of us were tired, and scared of a life alone.
Whatever happened or didn’t happen — we never really knew — she kept it quiet. It was really more a sense of possibility. Jenn was out there in the mist, glamor and tragedy. You couldn’t blame them for being interested. To have a nice clean pretty woman pour you a drink, touch your hand, a strange set of lips to kiss: we imagined all these things, in a way we longed for them ourselves. Danger and novelty.
“I don’t like it,” Jane Hart says, smoking a cigarette on the deck of the Dog. “Whatever she’s doing.”
“Whether she’s doing it or not,” says Siobhan from the Ace Hardware, and we all laugh. Though later it doesn’t seem funny.
Then it’s May, and Daniel Crouch is here. He stays at the Breakers, a nice old motel right on the beach. He has money, Daniel does. He works for Microsoft, we hear, and has a condo with a view of the Olympics on the 12th floor of a new building in Belltown, right by Pike Place market. Katie says it’s weird, how nice it is, like living in a movie. Apparently he hired somebody to decorate it for him.
He wants to be called Daniel, not Dan, and definitely not Danny. Which is why we call him Danny Boy.
He hasn’t been back for a couple or years, since before the accident, not even for Thanksgiving or Christmas. One year it was work, another year he took the angles girl to the Italian Alps to go skiing. Katie reports to us from behind the bar. His life reminds us of a reality show except it doesn’t seem real.
Of course he’s going to go see Jenn.
Then a couple of weeks later he’s back again, and this time he brings his dog. Even his dog is gay, a friendly little Corgi named Sam Spade. The sun comes out one evening and we see them running on the beach, Jenn and Daniel and Sam Spade, down on the hard, wet sand at the water’s edge. Jenn and the dog were setting the pace and Daniel was trying to keep up. Lisa saw them from the lobby of the Breakers and said it was a pretty sight, the three of them all good-looking and healthy. But later, just before she left the Dog, she said there was something sad, too, something she couldn’t put her finger on.
The next morning, they turn up for breakfast at the Big Wave café with wet hair. So that’s that.
Summer brings the tourists and we all get busy. Skinny children try to swim in the ocean, kites get flown, we sell china pelicans and hippie trinkets to the out-of-towners, we sell beach chairs, souvenir hats, clam chowder. Daniel comes and goes unnoticed, mostly. He’s here often enough, him and his little dog, and once we even saw him and Jenn with her boy. The boy is five now and his name is Christopher. They were eating french fries by the beach.
We don’t know what’s going on. Katie won’t tell us a thing, and we’re mostly too busy to ask. We see them together at the Farmer’s Market, Jenn and Daniel, and they don’t look happy, exactly. It’s like they’re holding onto each other for comfort, shared survivors. Maybe we’re making that up.
The only one of us, really, who called her a whore was Mary Ann Tucker, and she had a right. It was hard to say. Certainly she thought that Jenn had stolen something from her, something that belonged to her.
Then it’s Labor Day, or maybe the weekend after. These are the seasons here, three months of tourists and nine months of winter is the joke. Usually we get a break, right after the visitors leave, a month or six weeks of fine bright weather and the beach all to ourselves. We see each other in the restaurants, sitting at the good tables. We run our dogs on the beach. Some of the kids even fly kites.
Anyway it’s the start of that. The first weekend to ourselves. And down at the Castaways, in one of the back rooms, the four of them are sitting at a table together: Daniel, Christopher, Jenn and Donald Hake.
Hope Gillerman is the first to see them. She’s working tables that night, though they aren’t in her section. She says they look unhappy. Trying to talk, starting and stopping, the kid looking oblivious, his mother let him have a root beer float and then another, Jenn herself getting through three or four glasses of wine. What do they have to talk about? The divorce is final, as far as we know, the child-care arrangements and so on. And even then, it’s none of Daniel’s business. They’re ours, these three, the father, the mother, the brother. Their story is our story, is part of the weave of our lives. They belong to us, and we belong to them.
It doesn’t sit well, anyway. Hard to say why. Jenn goes home with the boy and the two men sit at the bar at the Rose and Raindrop, drinking Bridgeport IPA and talking, quietly enough for nobody to hear. What do they have to talk about? They look like men together, men drinking. It’s been raining and Donald doesn’t bother to take his North Face raincoat off, just sits at the bar drinking in his Goretex jacket, and Daniel has some kind of stubble thing going on, hard to say if it’s a stylish stubble or just weekend-at-the-beach. But they’re there till almost midnight talking. It’s a gift men seem to have: the ability to talk about nothing, at length and in good cheer.
It doesn’t seem right, anyway. The two of them next to each other, laughing sometimes. The dead girl, out in the ocean air. It isn’t right.
Summer’s over, the wait is on for winter. We have more time to think about things, maybe too much time.
One October night, Daniel’s visiting but Jenn has to go over to Salem with the soccer team, the regular coach is sick. Daniel’s staying at the Breakers, same as ever, and after dinner he goes into the bar there with his little computer tablet and orders a draft beer, a fancy one, and there at the other end of the bar, shitfaced, is Mary Ann Tucker. Lisa is behind the bar that night. She said she held her breath. Mary Ann has been all right, mostly, since the divorce. But once in a while she goes off the rails.
“You’re dating Jenn McGill,” Mary Ann says. It’s not a question. Daniel dips his head, admits it. Mary Ann says, “That cunt ruined my life.”
“That’s enough,” Lisa says from behind the bar.
“Every prick in this town has been in that cunt,” Mary Ann says. “She’ll fuck anything. Just so you know.”
That’s all. Lisa 86’s her after that. But that’s maybe enough.
We don’t see Daniel for a few weeks. We don’t see Jenn either. She’s there, at the title company during the day, her car parked in front of the house at night. But she isn’t anywhere else. Sue Foley, who works down in Lincoln City, sees Jenn coming out of the Safeway there with a week’s worth of groceries. The Safeway that we go to is in Tillamook, half an hour closer. All that extra driving so she won’t have to look at us.
Small town talk. That’s what Daniel tried to get away from when he moved to Seattle. That’s all Katie will say about it.
Fall comes, it starts to rain. One night Mary Ann Tucker is home alone with her kids when the doorbell rings. It’s Donald Hake, Jenn’s husband. He is almost too drunk to stand up.
“A thing like that,” Donald Hake says. “Why would you do that?”
Mary Ann won’t let him in, won’t unlock the screen door. He stands there in the porch light in the rain, weeping. Mary Ann closes the door and calls the police.
It’s one of the things about a town like ours. In Portland or Eugene he would have gone to jail, would have made the papers. That would have put a dent in his law career. But here, it’s Ray Acker who answers the call, and he just drives Donald home and tells him to sleep it off. Ray went to high school with Jenn. With all of us.
The good part and the bad part. A small town and a long winter.
They’re gone by spring. First Jenn, then Donald and the boy. They leave for Seattle and never come back. And who is sleeping with who, who is living where, who is in love and who is just getting by, none of us know. None of us but Katie, and she isn’t telling. We ask sometimes. But it’s none of our business, she says, not anymore. None of our business. Once in a while we see her, out at the cemetery. Siobhan from the Ace Hardware saw her there at the end of summer. It was a sunny day, and Jenn wore a skirt, and brought a blanket, and a water bottle, and flowers. She stayed the afternoon, and when Siobhan saw her she was lying on the blanket, face down, eyes closed, touching the headstone. She wasn’t moving. Siobhan said it was like she was sleeping, but she wasn’t. She stayed until the sun went behind the trees, and then she left. In the dark, the Pacific heaves and sobs and cries and pounds at the shore. Something at the heart of things, something inconsolable.
Kevin Canty’s eighth book, a novel called The Underworld, will be published by W. W. Norton in 2017. He is also the author of three previous collections of short stories (Where the Money Went, Honeymoon, and A Stranger In This World) and four novels (Nine Below Zero, Into the Great Wide Open, Winslow in Love and Everything). His short stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Esquire, Tin House, GQ, Glimmer Train, Story, the New England Review, Best American Short Stories 2015 and elsewhere; essays and articles in Vogue, Details, Playboy, the New York Times and the Oxford American, among others. His work has been translated into French, Dutch, Spanish, Catalan, German, Polish, Italian and Japanese. He lives and writes in Missoula, Montana.